The Finger Trap and the Stars of Advent
(This synopsis of the sermon is provided because skipping occurs periodically in the last half of the recording.)
Scriptures: Psalm 80; Psalm 106; I Peter 1:6-9
Our Psalm this morning has us painted into quite a predicament. As a vineyard we are utterly in ruins—our wall is broken down so that the wild beasts devour us, strip our branches, cut them down and burn us with fire. We’re supposed to be God’s people—a garden city set on a hill—protected and holy and flourishing. We were Protected, 8 Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it but now were vulnerable. We were Consecrated (Set apart for God): 9 Thou preparedst room before it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land; but now we’ve lost our distinctness. We were Blessed: 10 The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars. Its boughs reaching unto the sea, and her branches unto the river.
It often seems the Church in the West has lost its Identity, it’s Mission, and even it’s Presence. Certainly many of its citizens have. We’ve lost ourselves in the world. We’ve become like the chaff which the wind driveth away—stubble burned up. We’re living in Hell, the Psalmist is saying, as he asks, “Why?”—Why have you broken down our hedges?
Part 1: The Chinese Finger Trap
The implied answer of Psalm 80 is spelled out explicitly in a parallel Psalm 106:15--You gave them the desires of their heart but sent leanness into their souls. The context is the Wilderness journey—as God provided mannnah in order to teach them to trust Him; they were only concerned with the menu. They murmured for spices and pined for the “fleshpots of Egypt.” Finally God made quail rain from heaven, and as they gorged themselves, it didn’t matter that they had not learned to depend on God—had never learned to taste and see that the Lord is Good—they got what they wanted. And if the next day they were hungry again and felt a little older and more tired—they were none the wiser for it. God gave them the desires of their heart but sent leanness into their souls.
We have come closest of any age to achieving the desires of our hearts: We’ve been emancipated from drudgery by labor saving devices. Emancipated from the economic burden of social responsibilities to live as individuals. Have the world at our fingertips, but the greater the reach of our desires the greater the prison we make for ourselves. We’re building the perfect trap for ourselves—with both a bait and a hook. Like a Chinese Finger Trap, the deeper in we go, the harder it is to escape. Our Identity, Mission, and Presence are lost as we’ve pursued the Devices and Desires of our own hearts. We’ve created our own prison. But how do we transform our desires?
Part 2: The Riddle of Sight
Advent is the Answer. (And so this is a very timely sermon.) 14 Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: behold, and visit this vine 0 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth. The visitation he looks for is really to See God. And so 3 time he makes the prayer,Turn us, O God, show the light of thy countenance, and we shall be saved.
Paraphrased: Save us so we can see you, so that we can be saved. This prayer is kind of like a riddle—which comes first the chicken or the egg. Salvation or Revelation. Do we have to see God to be good, or do only the good see God? In order to see, the thing seen has to be in some way already in the seer.
- Salvation is the End (when Jesus Christ is fully revealed—the Son of Man coming on the Clouds (Mark 13; I Peter 1)
- But Revelation is the also the Means. By Faith we are already seeing Him—and seeing Christ changes our desires; awakens our imaginations to our true End—to set our affections on things above where the Son of Man as the fulfillment of the whole human story comes upon the clouds of glory. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. I Peter 1:7-9
- And so this is not just a Riddle—a cyclical prayer--but a Transformational Prayer: Convert us, so that We can see God (more and more; be changed from glory to glory) so that we shall finally be saved.
Conclusion: The Stars of Advent
I always appreciate the changing of seasons. There’s something about the dying of Fall and the Death of Winter that speaks to me and already opens up to me the possibility of a change of desire. The things of earth on which we set our affections are visibly seen to be passing. The world is moving towards midnight and the days are diminishing. At the same time there is a greater growing celestial influence over our planet. I looked up at the stars the other evening, and it seemed like a heavenly order was invading our world—our world of corruption and death—of falling leaves and growing cold—and yet there stand the stars over the naked trees. And now they’ve made their way down the trees and along the houses as people decorate their houses with all these points of light. Sitting around the fire the children even pointed out that the floating cinders were little stars, and if we were in a northern elevation we’d be seeing little star shaped snow flakes falling from the sky. This celestial descent—this influence of the spheres—as it used to be called awakens our hearts to watch for the transforming Heavenly visitation. Our heart is on watch for the Host of Heaven to announce the birth of a Child, for the Star that will light the way and lead us to Christ, for the whole company of Heaven that will fill the Sky as the Son of Man returns in Glory. Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: behold and visit us. I’ve determined this year to not allow my work to keep me from entering into the Christian year, but to allow the cosmic change of the season to assist in the conversion of my heart so that I can see God, to that I can truly be saved. Advent is a time of preparation, and we pray: Turn us O God, show the light of thy Countenance, and we shall be saved.